To acclimate to our new half-bull bodies, we walked up and down the alley for a half-hour. We only had a few hours until dawn. At that point, we’d need to be long gone for a number of reasons. First, Artemis was expecting us to hit the place at dawn. She would have some nasty, yet-to-be-determined surprise lying in wait for us. Second, the wards would reset. Rather than using that fraction of a second as a window into the compound, dawn would be our escape plan in the event Murphy showed up and laid down his shitty Laws. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the fuel—the minotaur hair—would be fully burnt by dawn, if not sooner.
Time to get a move on.
I peeked around the alley at the castle. The entry was large enough for Texas-sized lorries—you probably call them semis or eighteen-wheelers—to pass through. The portico was closed, a metal grate with bars, each thicker than my leg blocking entry. Six guards stood out front, staring straight ahead and motionless like the Queen’s Guard in front of Buckingham Palace, only with horns instead of fluffy hats.
Off to the side was a uniformed minotaur all by himself, glaring at any drunken group ambling too close. We’d seen a few other guards patrol by. Saluting appeared to work the same way as it did in every other militarized state I have visited: subordinates saluted superiors first. So far, every patrol passing saluted far faster than the gate guard did.
Rank was always difficult to determine in any military. Usually, the more flare on a person’s chest suggested higher levels of authority. No such convention existed here. However, every guard’s sleeve was adorned with a golden patch—a kite shield with tiny swords along the top. More swords appeared to mean higher rank.
Aiden and I had transmuted our clothes to match the minotaurs we impersonated, copying the uniforms with as much precision as we could. We each had 6 swords on our patches. The patrols wore emblems with 2 swords, and the gate guard had 3. This had been luck, rather than design.
Sometimes, Loki was kind—not that I would give the bastard any credit to his face.
Hopefully, our 6-sword patches would provide us with access to areas a lesser rank would be denied. Then again, once we hit the castle grounds, someone might ask us to do some act neither Aiden and I would be qualified to perform. We could, with a bit of ether, tap into the reserved ethereal pattern we’d taken from the minotaur to access some memories, but it would burn the hair fragments far more quickly. Plus, memories were not always reliable, and the excess ether would likely be detected.
Regardless, we were in it now. Worrying would only increase the likelihood one or both of us would fuck up.
Taking a deep breath, I turned back to the alley.
Aiden carried a definitive swagger to his step. Not the, I’m a badass, sort of walk. More like a, someone punched my face, sort of movement.
“Are you up for this?” I asked. “Maybe I should go at it alone.”
“I’m fine. Spirits are starting to kick in. I’m good.”
I was not convinced, but I also needed someone to watch my back. Gods damn dwarves. One swig, and he couldn’t walk straight. I would hate to see what an entire tankard would have done to him, and Aiden’s liver was conditioned to strong drinking. It would have probably killed me.
“Right. Fine, but you are following my lead. Every step of the way. Understood?”
“Of course,” he said. “Let’s move.”
Before I could object, he strutted past me and into the street, crossing to the front gates of the castle. I could argue with Aiden in front of them, but that would not get us anything but dead faster.
So, I gritted my teeth and followed him to the minotaur, guarding the side gate. Aiden marched toward the door as if it wasn’t closed, face suggesting it better be opened by the time he got there.
The minotaur jumped to open the wooden door, getting it clear just in time. He let us pass without asking any questions. Though, I noted, his brow raised a fraction. This suggested our actions were not exactly normal, but also not overtly suspicious. Hopefully this meant the guards we were impersonating had gone for the night and though it was rare for them to return, it was not so infrequent that our presence would sound the alarm.
Phew. First hurdle jumped.
We stepped through the doorway without a backward glance, but I kept telling myself you belong here, asshole, while trying to keep the etched-from-stone facial expression expected of a high-ranking minotaur guard.
As we passed through the wall, I felt the wards laced into the wall around us. It was impossible not to note the immense energy holding them in place. Think of the largest animal to ever walk the earth, like T-rex’s bigger sister in Jurassic World. The amount of electricity pulsing through the wall would stop its heart ten times over with a single touch. And that was just the surface defense. Gods. Our timing needed to be perfect when we came through. If we were off by a fraction of a second …
Nope. Couldn’t think about that right now. If we are undiscovered and everything goes perfectly, we might be able to walk right back out. No. Not if. When we got the artifacts, we’d just walk out the main gate, then move on to Phase II of our suicidal plan.
We exited the passageway into an open courtyard of dark cobblestone winding through a scene that put the Queen’s Garden in England to shame. As far as the eye could see, flowers of every color bloomed in intricate arrays of mythical creatures. A red dragon of broad petaled roses stood on two legs, towering over green cottages formed from hedges. It’s maw was open and chest expanded as if readying to breath fire. Other beings from legend were arrayed around the tiny homes, which were mostly quiet.
Smoke rose from the chimneys, mingling together above the tiny city. The air smelled of burning cinnamon and sage. Most of the windows of the pint-sized cottages were shuddered with large leaves. A few were open, revealing a low glow from within. I could make out shadows moving within but not details of the beings that lived there.
I walked past it, trying to mimic the guards from Victoria’s Inn. After all, this was common place, not a magical village inside a demigod’s domain. Or was Theseus a god now? It was possible he controlled the Nexus of power in this place rather than just acting as its steward on another god’s behalf. After all, the struggle for power on Earth had been modeled after Atlantis. Only a few civilizations across the entirety of the multiverse had truly moved beyond aggressive competition to a state of humble cooperation. Humanity would likely never achieve such a harmony. Neither would the Atlantians.
We passed a patrol, who saluted us before we could even see their patches. Aiden and I both slammed our fists to our breasts without slowing our steps. I noted from my periphery the 4 swords on their sleeves. The progression of rank left me wondering how far our guises would take us into the castle.
We marched along the cobbled path to the front gate of the castle. Two guards stood there, both with 4 swords on their golden patches as well. Just as before, we walked at the door with expectations of being admitted. Once more, salutes were exchanged and doors were opened, proving once again that having the right face and an abundance of confidence could get you anywhere.
Even in the low-light, wealthy did not begin to describe the welcoming chamber, as it was called in our schematics. Dark marble columns led to an expansive room with a dais and an empty throne made of a silvery substance far too glittery to be a simple metal. A fist-sized ruby adorned the top of the headrest. I could sense a fountain of ether within.
Openings along the sides led to other areas of the castle, including servants chambers, offices for members of parliament, as well as sleeping quarters for long sessions, and other rooms with a myriad of purposes. There was a gazing room somewhere, designed to peer across space. We cared for none of those.
We moved without pause to the lonely door behind the throne. It was locked, as we had expected. But, according to the schematics Victoria had given us, was not warded.
“You are up,” I whispered.
Still, the sound echoed across the chamber. Likely, the acoustics had been designed to make Theseus’s voice carry across the room to all those in attendance. When empty, that meant a whisper was a booming voice. I clamped my mouth shut.
In reply, Aiden scowled and made a shooing gesture. I slid aside and let him work. He produced thin pieces of metal with crimped ends and jammed them into the keyhole. It took less than 3 seconds for him to maneuver the lock.
The click reverberated around the empty room.
We both froze. I sucked in a breath and held it. My heart drummed against my chest. Footsteps sounded somewhere in the distance. Boots on stone. Two or three people marched alongside one another, moving toward us. I motioned for Aiden to hurry. He pulled the door handle.
To say rusty hinges squeaked is a drastic understatement.
Nails on chalkboard make less noise than the door screeching open. If the click had echoed, the door roared like a lion announcing its intentions to claim new territory.
For a second, we froze. The boots stopped. All was eerily quiet. Then the boots stomped harder. Faster. Aiden and I squeezed through the opening and pushed the door screaming shut. Its closing plunged us into darkness. The dank air smelled stale and moldy. I could almost taste it. Swallowing the rising bile, I fumbled for the knob and fidgeted until the lock clicked into place. If we were lucky, the guards on the other side of that door did not possess a key or the means to open it quickly.
We stood there, holding our breaths like kids hiding in a closet.
The handle rattled. A muffled voice said something. A different voice responded. The knob shook again, sending echoes through the hall behind us.
Hurried boots stomped away from the door.
A soft glow appeared, lighting Aiden’s face. He held his phone up, using the screen to light the area. Nodding toward the darkened corridor, he stepped slowly back from the door. I followed without argument.
We’d both used ether to burn the schematics into our memory. But now that we were here in the dark, the memories of the way forward were far less of an abstract plan and far more suicidal stupidity. Still, there was no turning back now. Worse, even if those guards did not come in, there was a good chance they would still be waiting out there when we came out, wanting to know why we held a fist-full of stolen goods.
Future Me could worry over that. Present Me had to avoid traps and pitfalls that would kill him. Aiden went right at the first turn. Left would lead to a hidden portal that would send a hapless thief into the center of this world’s sun. No thanks.
Using the light of Aiden’s phone, we kept going. The next turn, we went straight, then left, straight, right, right, left, straight. The temperature dropped, and I realized we were descending down a slope as we continued following the directions.
I tried not to imagine a team of minotaurs, led by Theseus, blasting down the door and hunting us through the maze. Instead, I focused on recalling the schematics. We still had one more hurdle to cross before we could enter the vault.
If the schematics were right—and they’d not misled us so far, seeing as how we had not met an unimaginably gruesome death yet—Asterion, the first minotaur, had not been killed. Somehow, he survived here without a heart, living as Theseus’s personal guardian. We had an idea of how to handle him but no notion of whether he would be reasonable or simply a mindless monster who destroyed all trespassers.
We walked into an open room with low lighting. Torches flickered on the wall to the side. The largest minotaur I’d ever seen sat on a simple stool, legs crossed as he read from a book. He wore nothing, save a loincloth. He made the Hulk look like a man-baby. How he could grow such muscles was beyond me. There was no way he could workout down here.
He looked up from his book as we entered. We stopped a pace into the room, prepared to fight, but hoping we would not need to. After all, a team of guards were likely descending on us as we stood there gaping like yokels.
“Hi,” I said, dumbly. Then again, how would you start a conversation with a guy who’d been held prisoner for centuries? No, he’d been here for millennia.
“Hello, little brothers,” he said in old common—a mix between Old English and Germanic. His deep voice was filled with patient concern. “Why have you come here?”
“We wish to free you,” I told him.
“You would show me such kindness? One who is not worthy?”
“No one deserves this,” I said, gesturing toward the darkened walls.
“I am an abomination. The progenitor of a race that should never have come to pass. I belong here.”
“Bull shit,” Aiden said then winced. “Pardon the terminology, but no one belongs in a place like this. Come with us.”
“You are not an abomination,” I said. “Your existence spawned an entire species. Men, women, and children live, all thanks to you.”
“Children?” he asked. “There are families now?”
“There are,” Aiden said. “They live in the city above you.”
The minotaur’s gaze grew distant, wistful. He looked up at the ceiling as though he might see them if he stared hard enough. All I saw was the team of minotaurs gearing up to kill us. But I did not rush him. I could see the angst in his eyes, on his face. Forcing him into an ultimatum would be a bad—
“But we need to go,” Aiden said. “Soon.”
“I cannot,” he said, voice sad now.
I could punch Aiden’s stupid face. Instead, I took a breath. “Why not?” I said, trying and failing to contain my frustration.
“Even if I wished to leave,” Asterion said. “Theseus has removed my heart and bound my life to this place. If I step from the labyrinth, I will die.”
“Are you certain?” Aiden asked.
“Quite. Or did you believe that tiny metal door a real barrier to my escape?”
“Liamc could you—”
“Way ahead of you.”
As I said before, I am a master in Thaumaturgy. If a ritual bound Asterion here, I could find it, maybe break or alter it so he could leave.
I opened my mind and sight using ether and looked around. There was no signature or imprint in the place suggesting a binding. Not until I looked at Asterion. A thread of energy protruded from him. The string of pulsing light led to a wall. No. Not a wall. That was the vault, covered and dust and unopened for some time.
“You are bound to something inside there,” I said, pointing.
Then realization dawned on me. The heart. It had to be the heart. All this time, the minotaur could have simply walked out of here by taking his heart with him. And gods damn it all, I am certain Artemis had known all along. For some reason, she wanted Asterion. I could do shit all about that now. After all, in for a penny, in for a pound.
“I warn you,” Asterion said. “If this is a trick to—”
Sounds of marching boots echoed from the maze.
“No trick,” I said. “And we are out of time. I know how to save you, but you’ll have to trust me. Will you come with us?”
I offered him my hand. He stared at it. Boots marched closer. I held my breath.